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Long Hot Summer in Minnesota

By Froma Harrop

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- This city will be hosting the Republican National Convention starting Labor Day. In the interests of showing Republicans a good time, the Minnesota state legislature voted to let bars here and in Minneapolis stay open until 4 a.m. during the convention. The closing time is now 2 a.m.

But the very Democratic St. Paul City Council voted against extending the bar hours, which may have reflected a reluctance to stretch the rules for Republicans as much as for drinking. Council member David Thune put it memorably, "I got 8,000 people who live downtown who don't want a bunch of Republican lobbyists puking on the streets."

The pasque flower, which heralds spring in the prairie, is just now showing its sweet face in this cold clime. But the politics here are already jungle-hot. Minnesota is ground zero for what may be the most expensive Senate race in the country. And even bar hours have become political.

(I don't see justice in extending last call during the stay of special guests and denying them to the natives who pay the taxes and stick around in winter. The Twin Cities is the second drunkest metropolis in America, according to Forbes -- Milwaukee is first -- and if the city fathers and mothers choose to close it down by 2 a.m., that's their prerogative, but why make exceptions?)

Of more lasting importance to the nation is the bruising race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his likely Democratic opponent, Al Franken. National Democrats have targeted this race as one of four in which they have a decent chance of knocking off a Republican incumbent -- and thereby gaining a working majority in the Senate. Other vulnerable Republicans are John Sununu of New Hampshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins of Maine.

Polls show a neck-and-neck battle between Coleman and Franken, the comedian and talk-show host. (Rasmussen Reports has Coleman leading Franken by an insignificant two points.) The candidates have together raised $18.5 million, the largest total for any Senate contest in the country.

Complicating matters, the liberal Franken now faces a credible challenge from the left. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas, here in St. Paul, is running for the nomination and doing surprisingly well in the state's liberal corner. At the Democratic convention in Olmstead County, he tied Franken by scoring nine delegates. And in Mower County, Nelson-Pallmeyer won 50 percent of the delegates against Franken's 20 percent. The state convention takes place in early June.

Franken is most everybody's idea of a liberal, but Nelson-Pallmeyer seems to have edged to the comedian's left. He wants all American troops out of Iraq in six months, while Franken wants the soldiers withdrawn, but "responsibly." Nelson-Pallmeyer endorses a national single-payer health plan, while Franken wants states to develop their own universal plans.

Adding spice, Jesse Ventura, a former third-party governor, said during a book tour that he'd "never say never" about an independent run for the Senate.

Coleman, meanwhile, was once a loyal Bush man but now has his track shoes laced tight. He tries at nearly every opportunity to put maximum distance between himself and the administration. An avid supporter of the Iraq war in 2003, he joined a bipartisan group opposed to the troop surge of 2007. (The politically flexible Coleman was a Democrat when he was elected mayor of St. Paul in 1993. He became a Republican three years later.)

Come the Republican Convention, many local Democratic legislators vow to protest in the streets. Never mind a 4 a.m. closing time -- perhaps they ought to close the bars by 4 p.m.

fharrop@projo.com

Copyright 2008, Providence Journal Co.


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